THERE can be little doubt that the climate is changing. In the UK we are seeing unprecedented flooding, in the United States they are shivering in the prolonged cold of the “polar vortex”, and the eastern Caribbean is still recovering from the floods and storms that occurred at the end of December.
Sadly, the natural disaster that struck Dominica, St Lucia, and St Vincent and the Grenadines last Christmas has long since slipped from the headlines. But the people of the Eastern Caribbean are still at the beginning of the process of rehabilitation and recovery.
The task is daunting. Addressing parliament, the prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves said, “Excessive rainfall in the mountainous interior amounting to about ten inches of rainfall in less than five hours precipitated the extraordinary floods, landslides and consequential loss and damage.”
Nine people died in St Vincent and three people are still missing more than six weeks later. They are presumed to be dead. Over 300 people lost their homes and had to be accommodated in shelters. Even now, 175 people are still in temporary accommodation. The loss of life was very tragic and it is a cruel irony that this all happened over the festive season.
But the damage to infrastructure presents the biggest challenge to the government. Fourteen bridges in St Vincent have been completely destroyed, 14 bridges damaged, miles of roads destroyed, making some areas inaccessible; ten per cent of forests have been destroyed and hundreds of houses are gone.
The total cost of the damage and loss is EC$330 million and this represents a devastating 15 per cent of the gross domestic product of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
But the really worrying thing is the near certainty that these storms and floods will happen more frequently in the future in the region. St Vincent was just recovering from storms last year. Prime Minister Gonsalves described these most recent storms as “the worst in living memory”. But how will the region cope if such storms become ever more frequent and severe?
The two dozen island nations of the Caribbean and the 40 million people who live there are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Higher temperatures, rising sea levels, and increased hurricane intensity are a threat to lives, property and livelihoods throughout the region. The death and destruction in St Vincent will not be the last.
In the face of the immediate crisis, the Eastern Caribbean is looking to the World Bank and others to fund reconstruction. But there is a pressing need for the international institutions to look at funding capital works to increase the resilience of the small island states of the region to climate change.
In St Vincent, this may take the form of improved drainage on many of the islands. In other parts of the region there may be ways to improve and protect vital infrastructure in the face of a changing climate.
There has been a great deal of work done on low carbon development in the Caribbean. But carbon emissions from the region are relatively small. Lowering them will make little difference if the big polluters like America, China and Europe continue on their merry way.
What is needed is recognition by the international institutions that small island states have not caused the climate change problem and therefore cannot be expected to bear the brunt of the consequences. With the current economic crisis there is a tendency for America and Europe to look inward.
Pundits in the UK often talk about climate change as if the effects are generations away. But the truth is the consequences of climate change are happening here and now in the Caribbean to disastrous effect. World powers must act.
• Courtesy Jamaica Observer